Let me preface everything I’m about to say by stating that I am a comedian, writer, and father of four. My life is about words, the intention of words, and the power words can carry. I am keenly aware of how tone and inflection can take a sentence from an uninspired string of syllables to a Southern Baptist preacher-level fire and brimstone sermon. I know that the intention of my words means just as much as how I say them. I love words! I love sentence structure, I love researching words, and as a comedian and especially as a father, I know just how much words matter.
That said, let’s talk about comedian Dave Chappelle and his words, specifically those from his latest special, “The Closer”. A lot of people have used words in support of Chappelle’s special; many more have used words against it. Strong words. And I’m going to use some words that may do the same thing. Because I think that anyone that believes that Chappelle is wrong because of his words ain’t right with theirs.
That’s right. I said it! Let me explain.
After a series of comedy specials that garnered the attention of the transgender community, Chappelle announced that his latest special, “The Closer”, would mark an end to his trans jokes. Though Chappelle made claims in his specials that he doesn’t have any hatred towards the trans community, some in the community believed that his jokes were punching down. Many argued that Chappelle’s jokes endangered the safety of those in the trans community. One of the issues, if not the biggest issue, from the special was Chappelle’s proclamation as a self-described member of “team TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and defense of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s stance on transgender women not being women. Protests to remove the special from Netflix, as well as all of Chappelle’s content, has been happening for weeks. Debates and articles written against Chappelle have exploded across the Internet. These articles have painted Chappelle as out-of-touch, hateful, and mean-spirited.
Chappelle, to his credit…or defiance…or disappointment for some…has not wavered in his position. As he stated in “The Closer”, “In our country, you can shoot and kill a Nigga, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” Recently going even deeper than that in his short video, “Stunted”, on YouTube, addressing the discord by blaming corporate interests for stoking the dissention. In “Stunted”, Chappelle makes the claim that many in the LGBTQ community have been supportive.
So, who’s right? Let’s break this down.
The idea of suppressing topics from humor, from clean to scatological, is a slippery slope. Every group gets ran at on both ends of the spectrum: gays and straight, blacks and whites; good and bad mothers and fathers; men and women, etc. Right, wrong, or otherwise, everyone will find themselves at the barrel of a comedian’s smoking gun. Comedy, as a whole has never been nice. It’s job is to attack the status quo and push the topical envelope. Do some cross the line? Sure. But, there’s bravery in doing that. Comedians show us what the world looks like and give vocal presence to the ideas that we keep in our heads. Comedians will always run afoul of societal norms because those norms never stay put. There’s no conceivable way that 1951’s Ralph Kramden of TV’s “The Honeymooners” would constantly threaten to hit his wife in the 21st century. All seven of the words that George Carlin said couldn’t be used on television in 1972, are now heard on television with abject frequency. Legendary comedian, Eddie Murphy would have no career if he started out today with the same act that was rife with homophobic content. Murphy has recently apologized for those jokes. Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman are just a few of the comedians that have apologized for jokes they’ve told in the past.
The world is constantly changing so should comedy change with it? It should evolve, become smarter, become cleverer. We aren’t telling “Yo Momma” jokes on stage anymore. We aren’t humping stools, either…well, most of us aren’t. Comedians are now speaking more about political, social issues, and the everyday relationships we have with family, friends, and careers. Despite those topics which can be highly personal, anyone can be offended by anything a comedian says. The difference is that in the age of social media, those that are offended can campaign to remove the offender with a few keystrokes. The objective being to “cancel” the comedian. This is both wrong and troublesome. Canceling someone enforces an idea that with enough support, an artist’s content, career, and character can be in jeopardy simply because of what they’ve SAID, not just what they may have DONE. And this canceling is purely based on the offended party’s idea of morality. This shouldn’t apply to comedy. Comedy is the one art form that is invented on the fly, in the moment, and is purely instinctual. It’s also an art form that happens in front of a voluntary and unsuspecting audience. Meaning that people actively show up to comedy shows most of the time without any idea of what they are about to hear. This idea that a person can go to a show and feel personally attacked is a real thing. But how can anyone feel this personally about a performance from someone that doesn’t know them? This is why comedy clubs put the artist’s bio on their websites so that the public can get a feel for the type of material that may be performed. And, people will go anyways. Most of the public will go to see a specific act purely because of the comedian’s past subject matter.
This is not the case with Chappelle; he’s different. His fans come to shows and stream his specials to get his point of view on a myriad of topics in joke form. For “The Closer”, many of Chappelle’s criticisms came from detractors that didn’t see his special. Sure, one can gain some context by hearing a clip of Chappelle stating he’s “team TERF”, but there is nuance even in that statement. Chappelle has admitted his confusion as to how he can and why he should change his beliefs; proclaiming his support of trans people living their lives as they want but also stating that “gender is a fact”. As a middle aged, straight Black man who was taught about gender being binary from the day that I was born, I admittedly struggle with anything that opposes what I’ve been taught. This is new to me. This will take time to adjust, adapt, and learn. What if I don’t ever accept this and maintain that “gender is binary only” is my truth. Is this enough to cancel me? Do my beliefs mean that I am flawed, mean, or obtuse? Like Chappelle, I’m supportive of anyone living their truth. It’s not my place to deny any human being their experience. But, should MINE be denied to allow theirs to flourish? Also, does canceling even work?
Again, who’s right? What’s right? As a comedian, I’m always going to side with a comedian’s right to say whatever it is they want. I think it’s imperative that all comedians do so. Because whatever funny person is accused of being in the wrong today, may be me in the wrong tomorrow. People will always complain about the meanness of comedy; there will always jokes anyone can flag as offensive. However, to try to police and clean up comedy is akin to people stopping concussions in football. It’s a great idea on the surface, but it’s a fruitless effort because the game requires the one thing that causes head injuries: hitting. Comedy is the same way. Teasing, mockery, biting commentary defines comedy. It’s baked in. Anything contrary to that is a college lecture. So, any group that thinks they can’t be included in this is silliness. I’m also willing to bet all of Netflix’s Adam Sandler movie money that these same people have laughed at jokes or made jokes at the expense of others and didn’t flinch about it. This is why I am staunch in the idea that Chappelle has a right to speak on whatever topic he wishes. And it is a blessing as artists for this to always remain our right. This doesn’t exclude him from criticism; that’s the consumer’s right. But, one should never trump the other. They should exist together, inviting dialogue and discord, but never hate and destruction. Taking away an artist’s ability to say what they wish should never be a factor. It begins to blur the line of what a comedian believes is funny and what they believe may get them cancelled. This puts us all in a precarious position because the artist’s intent of their words diminishes and the perception of those words takes over. That’s no bueno. So, instead of a cancelling campaign, just do not support him and move on. This is how people have been “cancelled” in the past. It’s easy to do.
As I see it, we are entitled to be three things to one another: to be loved, to be respected, and to be kind. None of that is a part of comedy. All bets are off. And, I would not have it any other way.
Mike Geeter is a national touring comedian that was born and raised in Pontiac, MI with his 16 siblings. Mike was featured on Hulu and Fox Television’s comedy showcase “Laughs” (Season 1) and the Detroit episode of “Kevin Hart Presents: Hart Of The City 2” on Comedy Central (Season 2). Mike’s first full length comedy CD “The Charm Offensive” is available on all digital platforms
Twitter & IG: @OhMikeGeeter